TV shows, movies based in District rarely film in D.C.
Tax breaks, police forces top reasons for disconnect
It’s a hobby among D.C. locals: Picking apart glaring geographic and architectural inaccuracies in movies and television shows set in the District.
One of the most infamous is the 1987 film “No Way Out,” in which Kevin Costner escapes pursuers by taking a subway from Georgetown. No subway station has ever existed in the tony neighborhood.
The opening credits of the new Amazon show “Jack Ryan” show the title character biking to work via a route that makes no geographic sense.
The reason for this disconnect is simple: Few TV shows or movies actually film in Washington.
That’s something D.C. officials are trying to change. They scored one success last summer with the filming of the “Wonder Woman” sequel in the District. And they have a high-profile ally in author George Pelecanos, who has set all 20 of his crime novels in the Washington area and is on a personal mission to turn the nation’s capital into a film hub.
But they have difficulties to overcome. Other cities offer more generous tax incentives. Filmmakers say Washington can be a difficult place for them — the entire District is a no-fly zone for helicopters and drones. Those seeking film permits must sometimes contend with several overlapping police forces: the Metropolitan Police, the U.S. Park Police, the U.S. Capitol Police and the Secret Service.
So Washington-centric series like “House of Cards” or “Veep” typically come to the District just to shoot what locals call the “postcard shots” of the monuments or the White House, then do their principal filming elsewhere.
“The Americans” was set in Washington, but filmed in Brooklyn; “NCIS” has been set in Washington for 16 seasons, but fakes the District in Southern California. “The Post” was filmed in Brooklyn, and “Lincoln” was filmed in Richmond — the capital of the Confederacy.
But Angela Gates, director of the District’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, feels like the city is on a roll after the “Wonder Woman” shooting.
“That says a lot about how far we’ve come,” Ms. Gates said. “When you do a project well, word of mouth starts to get around.”
She said 2016 was a turning point. That’s when Mayor Muriel Bowser reinstituted Washington’s dormant tax rebate program. A production spending more than $250,000 filming in the District can apply for a rebate of up to 35 percent of taxable expenditures, with further incentives for hiring local residents. Her office also helps secure permissions from law enforcement.
“We have a seat at the table now,” Ms. Gates said. “These are game-changing times for us.”
Mr. Pelecanos’ support has helped. His popularity is surging due to his work as a writer on “The Wire.” Now he’s the executive producer of the HBO show “The Deuce.” He recently completed an independent film, “DC Noir,” based on his stories, and made a point of filming in all eight of Washington’s wards.
“The city’s beautiful, and it hasn’t really been exploited yet,” said Mr. Pelecanos, who grew up in Silver Spring but regularly came into Washington to work in his father’s diner.
Mr. Pelecanos recalls many inaccuracies in Washington-based movies and shows, but he has a particular peeve about fire escapes. It bothers him when movies purportedly set in the District show apartment buildings with New York-style zigzag escapes.
“Baltimore or New York can look like D.C. to anybody but Washingtonians,” said Kyle David Crosby of Picture show Productions, who worked on “DC Noir.”
Still, competing against film hot spots like Georgia, Louisiana and New Mexico is hard. Washington’s funding package is relatively modest — about $5 million per year.
Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for state government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America, said Washington’s rebate funding is dwarfed by most of its rivals.
“They’ve put some money in it, but it’s still not competitive,” he said.
Still Mr. Stevenson said Washington has “a wonderful track record” and enjoys “a good reputation of being able to accommodate productions.”
The new Wonder Woman sequel filmed a scene on Pennsylvania Avenue in the District last spring. Each year, there are multiple movies and TV shows set in the District, but very few actually do the bulk of their filming there.
Writer George Pelecanos (left) has set all 20 of his crime novels in the Washington area and is on a mission to turn the nation’s capital into a film hub.